In the last few months I have been spending some time watching the ducks at Daventry Country Park. There don’t tend to be any unusual ducks there (at least not when I’m looking) but there are usually lots of them in the winter and several of the usual species.
One duck that I usually find there all year round is the gadwall. At first glance it is just a brown duck – the drakes and ducks are both brown. But, when you look more closely (unfortunately something my photo is not good enough to allow), there is an awful lot of detail – grey stripes and speckles – which makes them look very dapper indeed. The female looks very much like a mallard female, the picture above is a drake. Both sexes have the white flash on the wing bar, but the drake has that black patch at the rear end along with a black bill (the female’s is black on top and orange at the bottom) and beautiful chestnut feathers on the wings above the white bar.
Although the gadwall is here all year round, the numbers are boosted in the south east and midlands with birds from eastern Europe.
I don’t remember seeing gadwall when I was growing up (even on visits to Martin Mere). This might be because I just didn’t notice them or because back in the 1970s and 80s there weren’t many in the UK, especially not outside the south east. Numbers have increased about 5 per cent a year for the last 25 years. The release of captive birds, including a large number in Leicestershire, is a possible reason for their increased range and numbers.
So, next time you decide not to notice a grey-brown bird with a white wing patch – have a change of heart and a closer look – they really are a lovely dabbling duck.
It seems that these days mother nature has quite a few surprises out there waiting for me. But, then, it might be because I am going out looking for them more. So far in my morning / lunchtime nature ramblings I’ve been privileged to watch a kingfisher fishing on the River Nene most mornings for a couple of weeks, spied a treecreeper and goldcrest in amongst a flock of long-tailed tits and seen a goosander diving up and down. All within 10 minutes walk of Northampton Town Centre and all around 8am. I’ve also had the misfortune to listen to a very screechy jay several times – no problem with the jay, but that sound, now I’ve heard it, is unmistakeable.
My latest surprise came on Tuesday lunchtime – a sunny but breezy December afternoon, when I decided to go for a walk away from town and chose to wander down to Barnes Meadow Nature Reserve. I have to admit, I’ve not seen many water birds down at this end of the river, not that you can blame them, it’s a bit noisy and barren. Today though there were quite a few swans and Canada Geese. But, my big find of the day, were some Little Grebes, aka Dabchicks. These are dumpy, fluffy, compact little brown birds – a bit smaller than a moorhen. In the summer they are quite smart in their chestnut-red and black plumage, but in winter they are a little more subdued in their brown feathers. But, if you see them within a river’s width away they are quite distinctive, both in size and shape and the way they dive into the water. They dive more frequently than coots and moorhens and stay down for longer, looking for insects and small fish to eat. They also seem to almost throw themselves in the water, they are so fast.
I was quite surprised to see a couple of them quite close to the bridge over the river. I was even more surprised to see three more a little further on. What was even more surprising was the noise they made – I resolved to get back there in the same week with some sound recording gear to see if I could cut out some of the construction and road noise. It sounded much more tropical than you’d expect from a bird found on Britain’s muddy waters – I couldn’t decide if they were laughing or squabbling. Further along the river I found another couple, one that had been successful in its fishing ventures with a relatively large fish soon dispatched down its beak, both looking much brighter and redder in the sun. Then, I found a third group, and a fourth.
I know that these are quite a common bird, but it has been years since I saw one. Then, a couple of months ago I spotted three at the country park and now more than ten on the River Nene. The little devils are everywhere!
You can’t easily make them out – but there is a pair on the far side of the river in front of the scrubby tree in the centre.
I am eagerly awaiting the first chicks from the common terns at the Country Park so I am going to try and get down there once or twice each week for the next month or so (not a hardship). There are no signs of chicks yet, I am sure there would have been more bringing of fish if there were, but I think there are at least 6 or 7 nesting pairs. The new tern rafts give a pretty good view of the terns and there were several looking as though they were quite settled, some were on scraped up shingle, one was redistributing shingle around the ‘nest’ and I saw a change over between a pair – so definitely some eggs incubating going on. There was quite a bit of bickering and fighting amongst the terns on the raft and even some mating, so I think chicks might be hatching over the space of a few weeks.
However, the terns are not the only nesting birds at the Country Park. For the first time I have found a grey heron’s nest. The last time I was there the heron was sitting there, looking pretty comfortable. This time it looked empty. Fortunately, when I had another look a bit later on, one of the parents had come back and was feeding a youngster. It seems that there is only one in there , so perhaps they are new parents, or the cold weather has reduced the brood. Either way, the chick didn’t look very old – it was definitely grey and tried to flex its stubby little wings. I shall have to keep an eye on this nest as well as the terns!
Anyway, back to the high drama. Other than the herring and lesser black backed gulls that the terns often had to chase off (we watched one almost drowned after being forced into the water), they also had a go at some canada geese and a mute swan. But this isn’t the drama I am referring to.
As well as a mallard with eight ducklings and a pair of greylag geese with four goslings (very different parental approach between the ducks and geese), the aforementioned pair of canada geese also have four goslings. The reason that they incurred the wrath of the terns was because they had been chased halfway along the reservoir by a male mute swan with a huge attitude problem. I know that despite appearances swans are not at all serene and peaceful, but this one seems to see everything as a threat. Suffice it to say there is only the one pair of swans at this end of the water (and they have six cygnets).
At no point did this family (four adults and four goslings) go anywhere near the cygnets, but he chased them across the water and at one point seemed to separate out one of the goslings from the rest (a bit like the sheepdog on One Man and His Dog). The adults would attack the male swan, diverting his attention so the gosling could get further away. But, sometimes this wasn’t enough and several times one or more of the goslings dived underwater (they can stay under for quite some time) to avoid being killed. One poor gosling got completely separated and was chased away from the family group by the swan. Two of the adults worked together to try and get the gosling to safety, whilst the remaining goslings appeared to be under the care of the other two geese. This chase / attack lasted for a good fifteen minutes or so, with the gosling going on land, under water and in the reeds. Eventually it was led to safety by one of the adults and shepherded up to the far end of the water with its siblings whilst the other goose kept the psychotic swan occupied.
A few weeks ago I went to Brandon Marsh and bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t tell the difference between a reed warbler and a sedge warbler. Fortunately I had already booked myself on a course to learn to identify warblers that was run by the local wildlife trust (Beds, Northants and Cambridgeshire).
So, I set my alarm for 5am this morning so I could get up in time to meet the instructor at 7am at the lovely Summer Leys reserve. Despite the gloomy weather forecast, the sun was shining and the sky was blue (although it was still a bit chilly) as I joined 12 other people hoping to be able to tell their Sylvidae apart.
Fortunately for those of us in the middle of the UK, there are only about 10 warblers that we are likely to encounter which is just as well because they all tend to be somewhere on the spectrum between grey and olive passing through brown. Out of these, the grasshopper warbler is distinctive in song, and tends to just pass through the area (which I didn’t know) and the Cetti’s warbler (new to the UK since the early 1970s) has an explosive, loud burst of song. Hmmm, I need some practice at birdsong recording methinks.
The main goal of the course was to be able to tell four groups of similar warblers apart; willow warbler and chiffchaff (look almost identical, but sound completely different), garden warbler and blackcap (look different, sound very similar), reed and sedge warbler (look different, superficially sound the same, but difficult to see), common and lesser whitethroat (look similar sound very different).
We were lucky enough to hear and / or see eight out of the ten warblers; unfortunately we didn’t find a lesser whitethroat, a bird that I’ve never seen before.
We started with a walk around the reserve, which was filled with birdsong, and some less tuneful birds like the gulls and greylag geese. Even better, there weren’t that many people about. After nearly two hours we headed off to see some pictures and hear some recordings of the birds (the BTO website has some brilliant ID videos) before going back to see if the birds were still singing. (Some were in exactly the same spot, but the road noise was horrendous, even though we were in the middle of nowhere).
So, am I now wise in the ways of warblers – other than the lesser whitethroat, I think I am. I heard the willow warbler (unfortunately I didn’t get a good recording of it)
– and now I wonder if I have been hearing them all the time, but mistaking them for chaffinches. They really have a lovely song – the instructor likened it to a falling leaf. I will have to go out and see if I can find one in the local country park. I think I can tick these two off my can recognise list.
Sedge and reed warblers – this was trickier at first, but there is a big difference in the pace and the complexity of the songs – the reed warbler is quite plodding whereas the sedge warbler is more frantic with lots of whistles and changes in pitch – they also sing in the air as well and are found away from the reeds, usually in scrub, unlike the reed warbler. So, I will have to go back through the recordings I have made at Barnes Meadow and go back to Brandon Marsh, but I think I have these two sussed as well.
Common whitethroat – much shorter song and I think I can visually recognise one.
Blackcaps and garden warblers – probably the trickiest and at times the instructor couldn’t say for certain. However, the blackcap, to me, sounded as though he knew he was going to finish, whereas the garden warbler just garbled on for some time before stopping. Besides, they look different and, although we saw one garden warbler during the day, we saw a lot more blackcaps – they are much showier. I think I am on about a 90% confidence with these. I just have to learn their other calls, as I didn’t realise that it wasn’t only the blackcap that makes a noise like two pebbles being bashed although to my ear the garden warbler call sound was more like a squirrel than a pebble.
In the end we saw a Cetti’s warbler (very rarely seen and a first spot for me), reed and sedge warblers (so now I have seen a reed warbler, although only briefly), blackcap and garden warbler (my second ever garden warbler, the first being last weekend during a run), heard a willow warbler, saw and heard a chiffchaff and saw and heard a couple of common whitethroats. Stick in a little egret and about 8 hobbies and I would call that a good morning’s birding. Oh, and yes, I think I can say that I can now ID warblers (most of the time).
So, the moral of the story is, get up early and go out listening, then stand and watch.
This year I saw my first common terns back at the country park on 19th April – this is about the same time as last year, give or take a day or two and is one of the many signs of summer. Even better news is that there are now two shiny (figuratively speaking) new tern rafts with a much better view of the nesting level. Thank you Daventry Country Park!
I’ve been over a couple of times since they returned and will try and get there more regularly going forward (weather and work permitting). The first time was about a week after they had arrived. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but very little fish catching in evidence. I only saw them dipping towards the surface, perhaps finding very small crustaceans or just taking insects.
None of the terns seemed particularly settled on any tern raft, so I don’t think they had particularly paired up. However, I did see what might have been courtship / pairing as described in the Tern book that I recently read. I saw two birds circling in the air, slowly gliding downwards passing past each other – called high flight in the book. I missed the ascent, but the book describes it as ‘a gliding descent in which the birds sway from side to side so that their paths repeatedly cross’. That’s pretty much what I saw.
Other things I noted that day was a grey heron’s nest above the water, three sandpipers and an absence of Black Headed Gulls – I guess these have gone off to breed, and a sedge warbler singing.
So, fast forward almost a week and I was back at the country park to check on my terns. This time there seemed to be even more terns making more noise – they are difficult to count, but there must be around a couple of dozen now. Quite a few were sitting on the tern rafts, both old and new – although the ducks seem to quite like them as well. I did see some fish being brought in, but not how they were caught. I think one was trying to impress a female, but had it stolen just as he was about to hand it over – kleptoparasitism is apparently relative common in these terns and some get the majority of their food this way! The female flew off unimpressed. However, the majority of the terns still seem to be skimming the surface.
I did see some battles above the old tern rafts but also a lot of posturing with wings lowered and heads in the air which I believe is a sign of non-agression. Showing the black caps to another tern is an out and out sign of aggression. I did see a pair that were quite settled on one of the new rafts (the lighter green one for future reference) and I did see them mating so there should hopefully be some chicks in just over three weeks – I will have to put a note in my calendar to go and have a look on or after 26th May! At least they were on one of the raised platforms so I only have to worry about the gulls, not flooding!
So, the reason why I often find myself disappointed with Brandon Marsh is because on my first visit there I was spoilt with fantastic views of kingfishers and a hobby from the Carlton Hide. I haven’t seen a hobby there since and it’s a while since I spotted a kingfisher there (I have in fact seen both of these at Daventry Country Park). The Carlton hide should offer fantastic views of waders and water birds. But it doesn’t. Last time I went the bird count was similar to that at the Teal Pool Hide – aka nothing. So I was set for disappointment when I opened the shutters (there was no one else there). But, today, my view was filled with house martins and swallows darting about in front of the hide, chasing insects over the reed beds, twittering to each other and performing aerial acrobatics.
View from the Carlton Hide
I saw another whitethroat at close range and saw my first black cap of the year – a male (I’d heard plenty, but not seen any so far). There were reed or sedge warblers about – I think sedge and I got a good view of a female reed bunting darting about in the reeds – as they do I suppose. There was a cuckoo up here too, although I still couldn’t see it and it sounded some distance away.
In the last few years they have extended the reserve, the latest addition being some screens up at Newlands, overlooking more of the reed bed. Or at least that was what was there last time, now they have a new hide!
The Ted Jury Hide
These are the views left and right through the screens:
But when I went in and opened up the shutters, oh my, what a view, it nearly took my breath away:
There was a constant burble from the house martins hunting in the reed beds in even larger numbers, but there wasn’t a lot else that I could see. Still, it is early days and these things tend to take some time to settle down. I waited a while in case an osprey turned up – after all they’d kindly erected a platform for him to land on, but not surprisingly, he didn’t show. Still there were plenty of house martins and sand martins to keep me mesmerised. I realised that the sand martins were much easier to differentiate than I thought, even at speed (theirs, not mine). They don’t have the white rump that their cousins the house martins have and they also make a very different sound, more squawky than the tweeting of the house martins. I hate to say it, but a hobby would have had good hunting round there today.
I worried about getting back before they closed the gates, but couldn’t resist going towards one of the hides and out towards a different part of the reed bed in the hope that I might find a Cettis warbler as I’ve heard them round that side most years. However, on this occasion they disappointed and I didn’t hear anything. I wandered further along and met a couple of gentlemen who were going the opposite way and told me that there was always a grasshopper warbler singing in the nearby marshy areas if I just stopped and listened. A grasshopper warbler – that would be a lifetime first for me. Although, going by my sedge / reed warbler dilemma the chances of me actually recognising it were close to zero. Still I stood and listened. And, I heard a sedge warbler or was it a reed warbler. I waited and then I heard it, very faint, but definitely, something that really did sound like a stridulating grasshopper. Amazing – what a day.
I didn’t hear it again, although I wandered along the path by the reed bed. I did hear other warblers and, some sounded less scratchy than the sedge warblers I’d been listening to and they didn’t seem to stop to start again. Hearing them side by side I am pretty sure that I did hear a reed warbler, so, although I still haven’t seen one, I have now heard one. After all, the whole point of warblers is their song.
Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed a complete lack of greenfinches in their garden this winter. I know the Big Garden Birdwatch has seen a big drop, but I can’t remember the last time I saw one anywhere, even in the country park.
What I do get a lot of are goldfinches – one of my favourite birds (although they are not as high up as bullfinches and long-tailed tits). We tend to get at least four or five a day in the winter, but we’ve had up to two dozen – quite a lot with only one bird feeder – but I have plans for next year… In the summer we tend to get some adults and fledglings in the garden, the chicks staying with us for some time. You can usually tell they’ve arrived by the cacophony of begging noises coming from outside.
However, whilst watching the birds I started to wonder if it would be possible to tell how many individuals come into the garden. I think the short answer is going to be not a chance, but it did lead me to wonder if there is an easy way to tell males and females apart.
According to many websites, yes you can. The males have more extensive red masks and black feathers around their beaks – the females also have shorter wings and white or grey feathers around their beaks. There is also a difference in the extent of the brown on their wings. Not simple, but doable with some effort. It was then that I came across and excellent blog by a bird ringer who dispelled all of these myths with examples of birds he’d caught and sexed with certainty (and there were plenty even he couldn’t be sure about).
However, there are some differences I have spotted, such as the size of the white spots on the wing tips and, how white they are. I am not sure if this will change with time, along with the black tip to some of the beaks – so it will be worth checking again in the summer when the only birds about will be adults. See the photos below – goldfinch 1 has mainly white spots with a hint of beige, but goldfinch 2 has spots that are much closer to beige than brown.
More work required methinks, ho hum, I will just have to stand at the window watching birds for hours.
However, as these charming birds are not very long lived in the wild it is probably just as well that I can’t differentiate them.
BTW if you wondered, apparently the name charm for a flock of goldfinches comes from the noise they make rather than their appearance.
So I set off last weekend to see how my tern chick was getting along – although secretly I was a little worried that it might still have been small enough to make a tasty meal for the herring gulls that periodically flew over the rafts.
But, worry not. I think the chick was still alive and well, but it was difficult to tell. In fact, I counted 5 juvenile terns – chicks seems an inappropriate term now as they were not at all fluffy and looked very similar to the adults. There were some differences in appearance and behaviour though to help me out. Although they were mainly grey and white, there were some noticeable brown feathers on the wings, the tails seemed a bit short and the beaks had a bit of a yellow-orange look compared to the bright red of their parents. They spent most of their time perched on the edge of the tern rafts – with the occasional foray into flight. However, the landings looked a bit on the clumsy side and I was convinced that one of them was sooner or later going to miss.
When I watch an adult tern they seem almost effortless, with languid wing strokes; in comparison the youngsters seem almost panicky: flap, flap, flap in case they crash into the water. They were also still reliant on their parents for food, with loud shouts every time one came near with fish.
Two days later and it was all change again. Lots of terns were out above the water, resting in the rafts or just perching on the fence posts at the edge of the water. The youngsters were out and about as well. We watched one following or being followed by an adult. It seemed that it was learning how to fish. It wasn’t very successful, but was definitely persistent. At first it was patient, trying the occasional dive and then flying off a little further. After a while though I think it was getting a little more desperate – it would hover above, dive, then come back up and quickly dive back down again. Eventually the parent shadowing it showed how it was done and gave the youngster a fishy reward for its efforts.
Whilst I am really pleased to see that at least 5 chicks have been successfully reared by the terns, watching them made me a little sad as I realised that before long they will be on their way again.
The black-headed gulls are now drifting back to the country park to fill in the gap the terns will leave. Does that mean summer is nearly over?
So, feeling bad about not checking on my terns, I’ve paid two visits this week. First, an evening trip after work on Monday. The majority of the noise and activity was from the tern rafts – other birds such as the swifts were not present in great numbers and the big gulls were still down at the far end of the water.
The birds seemed to be busy setting up territories with quite a bit of squabbling going on when an interloper tried to land – they could land on certain parts of the raft, but not others. Most parts of the raft had only one bird in place – mainly sitting, have a preen or shouting at the other terns. Sitting around the edge of the raft in general seemed to be tolerated, particularly on the larger, higher new raft. Landing, within the confines less so. I did see some digging around by a couple of birds – not sure what they were digging into or if it was some sort of bonding ritual, and I also saw the presentation of a newly caught fish from one tern to another – that seemed much clearer. I left feeling that all was well with my terns and looking forward to watching them next weekend.
However, the weather in between then and now has been terrible -strong winds, thunder, lightning and lots of rain. The results were fairly predictable. Returning today (Sunday) it was noticeable that a number of the older, shallower rafts were under water to some extent again. Whilst they were occupied I think it was just somewhere for the terns to sit and have a rest. I hope that none had laid their eggs in the last week – if they did, will they lay again? I have no idea. The other, more robust rafts, were still occupied although I’m not sure how many birds were there – I saw the tips of some wing feathers peeking over the top but couldn’t be certain that there were more than a couple of birds in residence.
I did get a good view of the terns fishing – they looked beautiful backlit by the sun, at times almost hovering, wings and tail spread, at other times they zoomed past so fast on the gusts of wind they appeared as just a white flash through my telescope. More wet weather is forecast for the coming week – I just hope that the birds sit tight and keep away from those old rafts.
The water is quite quiet apart from the terns at the moment, but I did notice a fairly sizeable chick with one of the great crested grebes – I guess they nested quite early this year. Note to self – find out when great crested grebes usually nest.
No, I don’t mean the 80s pop band (they were around in the 80s weren’t they), but the black headed gulls bobbing about on the water at Daventry Country Park.
In my last post I waffled about my discovery of a totally new species for me – the black tern. Well, that wasn’t the only new species that I spotted that day when out with my scope. As I mentioned the black terns seemed to be quicker than the common terns over the water, and I had a bit of trouble following them in my scope. This was made a little more difficult by the fact that I get easily distracted and, on this occasion it was probably a good thing. Bobbing about on the water, seemingly quite happy amongst the bigger gulls, was a black headed gull. Unlike the gulls named black headed gulls (BH gulls), this one did actually have a black head, rather than chocolate brown. I was sadly very excited. Not only because here was the second new species in a day, but because I actually noticed it and decided it was different. Notebook time again (it’s becoming a bit of a habit) and I really wish I could draw, but I can’t so I scribbled instead.
I noted that the bird was smaller, as I mentioned above, that it had a black head that came all the way down its neck (that is what I was trying to get at in the picture) and that it didn’t have a white ring around its eye – I somehow knew that this was important (probably due to the huge number of bird books I had read over the years). The bill also looked neater than that of the BH gulls all around it and it seemed to have a pinky tinge to its breast feathers.
I’ll not bore you with the details, but this was a Little Gull, larus minutus, unlike the BH gull, appropriately named as it is the smallest gull, and is described as more delicate than the BH gull with which it bears some similarities. So, one trip with a telescope to the country park and two new birds to add to my lifetime list (if I kept such a thing).